Like a great many Bay Area residents, I spend a significant part of my day commuting to and from work. My drive lasts a little under an hour each way, giving me about two hours behind the wheel every day. I fill this time listening to a wide variety of Latin Jazz, ranging from classic recordings to new albums that I’m considering for review. Although I’d rather be out of the car, listening is a great way to spend my time. On the easier days, it gets me to work feeling energized and ready to tackle the day. On the tougher days filled with traffic and bumper to bumper conditions, it at least keeps my sanity in tact. Everyday is a little bit different, but one thing remains the same – listening is a big part of my daily life in the car.
As I was heading to work today, a frightening but somewhat realistic thought occurred to me. Driving is one of the most dangerous activities that we engage in. People die everyday on the road as a result of falling to sleep, drunk driving, simple carelessness, and more. This thought popped into my head as I was listening to a less than stellar CD from an unnamed artist who had sent me their album for review. When I realized the potential danger of my daily drive, it came to me – I might have a fatal accident and this could be the last piece of music that I ever hear in my life. At that moment, I knew that this recording was not what I wanted in my ears as I was meeting my end. I quickly stopped that recording and moved to a piece that has meant something to me in my life, knowing that I could go with a smile on my face hearing it. I made it home safely that day, but I still had a major reality check.
My realization inspired me to put together a playlist of songs that I would feel comfortable hearing during my last moments on earth. It was a rather morbid exercise, but one that made me really think about the songs that have made a major impact upon my life. Most of these recordings are older recordings that have meant something to me. If I avoid any tragic car wrecks over the next couple of decades, maybe I’ll revise my list to include the music of today. For now, there’s a bit of nostalgia in my list, and these five songs form my last musical wishes. If you’ve got songs that you’d like to hear during your last moments on earth, let me know down in the comments. Enjoy!
1. “Chile Con Soul” – Chile Con Soul, Poncho Sanchez
When Latin rhythms first piqued my interest in college, I went to my bass teacher in search of recommendations for good recordings. I remember him saying something like, “Why don’t you check out the new recording from Poncho Sanchez? It’s got a little bit of everything on it.” Back in those days, I had to go to Tower Records and dig through the bins, and believe me, tracking down this album took some effort. I put in the time though and walked away with a cassette tape of Sanchez’s Chile Con Soul. When I popped the tape into my car stereo, I opened a whole new world that took a long time to really understand. This album helped me get there; I think that I wore that cassette out in record time. It did have a little bit of everything – from the salsa energy of “Mama Guela” to the 6/8 intensity of “A Night In London” and a guest spot from Tito Puente on “Ti-Pon-Pa,” this album served as such a great example of all aspects of Latin Jazz. It was the funky cha-cha-cha “Chile Con Soul” that caught my ear though. I think that there was something familiar that I could hold onto in the bluesy groove and I just couldn’t get enough. Gene Burkert’s soulful alto sax solo and Charlie Otwell’s funky piano solo still resonate with me. There’s just something fun and inspired about this track that keeps me coming back for more – it always puts a smile on my face . . . which seems like a good way to spend your final moments.
2. “Descarga Para Banda Y Combo” – 40 Years of Cuban Jam Sessions, Paquito D’Rivera
I was still a newcomer to Latin Jazz when I encountered Paquito D’Rivera’s 40 Years of Cuban Jam Sessions, and it seriously rocked my world. It had so much going for it – the album was chock full of Paquito’s brilliantly arranged compositions performed with an inspired vibe, trombonist Juan Pablo Torres played with fire all over the album, Cachao helmed the bass chair on several spots, and a number of musicians gave their all. The album got plenty of play on my CD players, and “Descarga Para Banda Y Combo” was definitely my favorite. A structured march explodes into one of the most alive descargas that you’ll hear, giving all the prime players a chance to just cut loose. There was a sense of excitement behind the performance that just spoke to me. I thought that it had to be a magic moment captured on tape, something that couldn’t be repeated – until I got a chance to see Paquito in concert. Accompanied by a quintet, he went through several tunes from the album, performing each piece with an amazing intensity and finesse. When he hit the high trill to announce “Descarga Para Banda Y Combo,” my adrenaline hit the ceiling – and so did the band’s energy level. I learned that night that master musicians like D’Rivera simply know what it takes to move the music into a higher level and they can call upon that at any point. D’Rivera has served as a role model for me since that point, and it all goes back to my connection with “Descarga Para Banda Y Combo.” I still get that same inspiration from the tune, and I’d love to feel that as I moved on.
3. “Palmas” – Palmas, Eddie Palmieri
During another trip to Tower Records, I was browsing through the (rather small) Latin music section and came across Eddie Palmieri’s Palmas. At that point, I had never heard Palmieri, but the name had come to my attention several times. I was trying to check out all the music’s major figures at the time, so I plunked down the cash and took Palmas home. I remember coming home, putting the disc into my CD player, and cranking up the volume. I’ll never forget what happened next – Palmieri and his Afro-Caribbean Jazz Septet hit me across the face like a ton of bricks. The groove was massively fierce throughout the album, and the rhythm section was simply over the top. The wind players captured that vibe and put jazz solos over the top with a bold fearlessness that just couldn’t be matched. There’s a ton of amazing tracks on that album, from the bluesy cha cha cha “Slowvisor” to the funky intensity of “Mare Nostrum” and the quirky beauty of “Bolero Dos,” but the title track hit me the hardest. It’s a smart composition that doesn’t simply mix jazz and Latin music – it takes jazz harmony and squeezes it into Palmieri’s world. There’s long solos from trumpet player Brian Lynch, saxophonist Donald Harrison, and trombone player Conrad Herwig that will make your head spin. Palmieri’s improvisation was a masterful statement that had so much to it – it’s a complete story full of all the excitement and drama of life. The track presented a sound that’s totally unique to Palmieri and really hasn’t been matched. It sends chills down my spine to this day, something I’d like to be feeling before I meet my maker.
4. “Obsesion” – Moliendo Café, Jerry Gonzalez And The Fort Apache Band
From the first time that I heard Jerry Gonzalez And The Fort Apache Band, I was simply fascinated by their interpretation of Latin Jazz. At the time, I had listened to a lot of Latin Jazz that held closely onto the music’s dance roots, prioritizing the groove above everything. Fort Apache had an amazing groove, but they weren’t afraid to mess with it. Songs would move between Cuban rhythms and swing at the drop of a hat. If that wasn’t enough, they would jump into a double time rumba to mix things up. Completely syncopated breaks appeared out of thin air and then pushed the music into another level of intensity. They were outright fearless in their approach, never offering any sort of apology for their different take on the style. There was never any reason that they had to make concessions either – even though I didn’t understand why they were doing what they do, they held a very real sense of authority in both Afro-Cuban music and jazz. I listened intently to The Fort Apache Band for many years, indulging in this beautiful mystery, and then I came across “Obsesion.” Little did I know that this was the band’s vision of an old standard, but one thing was perfectly clear – their approach made perfect sense. They abrupt shifts between swing and rumba cradled the melody in a wonderful way and the powerful groove sent the soloists into the atmosphere. This opened my perspective onto the rest of Fort Apache’s repertoire and it showed me that there are lots of ways to approach Latin Jazz. I still feel that intriguing sense of discovery every time I listen to “Obsesion” – something I’d love to be knee deep in as I fade away.
5. “Una Descarga A Cachao” – Ahora Si, Cachao
I’ve listened to a lot of great Latin Jazz bass players over the years, but one of the musicians that has always stuck with me is the great Israel Lopéz “Cachao.” Early on in my studies, someone recommended him to me, which led me to Cuban Jam Sessions. From that point, there was no turning back, and I keep my eye on Cachao as closely as possible. That led me to a lot of fantastic albums, which could probably provide a wealth of extra tracks to this list. The one track that always pops out at me though is the Andy Garcia contribution to the 2003 album Ahora Si, “Una Descarga a Cachao.” This lively tribute to Cachao has all the spirit of the class descargas warmly attached to his name. There’s a great montuno, an unbeatable rhythm section groove, plenty of massive mambos and moña, not to mention killer solo work from trombonist Jimmy Bosch. The highlight of this twelve minute jam has to be the extended solo from the master himself, which provides a mini-lesson about all the best ways to approach improvisation in this style. He plays with his fingers and with his bow; he hits the side of the bass and plays above the bridge; he plays with a percussive intensity while integrating singable melodies – there’s a bit of everything in here, sewn together with supreme taste. Throw in the performance live on the disc’s bonus DVD and history is made. I can’t help but mention that Cachao was 85 at that point – I just hope that I can play like that when I hit 85 . . . if I don’t get in an ugly car wreck before then.
Check Out These Related Posts:
Latin Jazz Conversations: Eddie Palmieri (Part 3)
Revisiting Latin Jazz Classics: Ya Yo Me Cure, Jerry Gonzalez
Essential Cachao Recordings, Part 3: Cachao’s Early Miami Years
Latin Jazz Conversations: Poncho Sanchez (Part 3)